Her name in Hebrew was Miriam. She was very young, maybe 13 or 14 when she became pregnant out of wedlock.
In the society of her day, her pregnancy out of wedlock was considered a scandal, bringing shame on her parents.
She soon fled to the protection of her older cousin, Elisheba, who was wife of a Temple priest, Zechariah, and as such enjoyed a certain privilege.
Yet to hide the pregnant Miriam must have come with significant personal risk for Elisheba. And yet she greeted Miriam with joy and affirmed the great things soon to be fulfilled with her child.
We know Elisheba as Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and we know Miriam as Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, is the Sunday we hear their story, and the Sunday set aside especially to remember and honor Mary.
What do we know of her? I don’t mean the Virgin Mary of mythology and veneration – rather, what do we know of this very young Jewish teenager who gave birth to Jesus?
Not much, but just enough.
The Greek of the New Testament uses the word parqenoV to describe her, which we translate as “virgin” in English; but the word also means “young girl” or “unwed maiden.”
The word has everything to do with Mary’s age and marital status, not just her biology.
We know this too: Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a Jewish man probably quite a bit older than she. Almost certainly this was an arranged marriage. He probably never had met her until the day of their marriage.
Mary no doubt outlived Joseph, for we hear little else about him soon after Jesus’s childhood.
In the Gospel of Matthew, an angel tells Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy. He has no idea who the father is – the angel doesn’t tell him. All he knows is the maiden he is about to marry is pregnant, and not by him.
Jewish law held that Joseph, if he wished, could have had Mary stoned to death for what was an obvious tarnishing of his honor.
He could have dispatched her just like this, and no one would have thought it wrong.
It is a great act of faith and courage on the part of Joseph that he weds Mary anyway, and takes her child as his own.
It is to the Gospel of Luke where we must turn to catch a glimpse of Mary’s personality.
In Luke, we hear that an angel came to Mary in a dream, and told her she was with child, and that God was already dwelling within her.
Mary must have been terrified. She knew Joseph could have her put to death. Yet she trusted all would be well even when reason was screaming otherwise.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings in the Gospel of Luke, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
Luke tell us that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem be registered for a census. The only problem with this story is that history records no such census. Almost certainly they were fleeing from the judgmental eyes of their relatives.
The rest of the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus will unfold as we enter Christmas, and in the days beyond to Easter.
There is another side to the Mary story, and to hear it we need to fast-forward into the fourth century, to that Nicene Creed that we recite week after week, sometimes with difficulty.
The church fathers, and they were men, knew there was something miraculous about the birth of Jesus, as indeed there was.
But they struggled mightily with the idea that Jesus was both God and man at the same time. They struggled with the theological concept of the “incarnation,” from which, not incidentally, this parish takes its name.
To be God, they reasoned, Jesus must be pure, he must be without sin, and by the fourth century sinfulness was becoming equated with the human body and sexuality.
Some influential Greek philosophers saw the human body as revolting, and so all sex, even in the covenant of marriage, became sinful to them.
For Jesus to be without sin, they reasoned, he must have been born outside of sexual relations. The focus on Mary as a pure “virgin” came into high relief.
A legend even grew that Mary’s own birth must have been to a virgin mother, becoming known as the “immaculate conception” of Mary.
Mary needed to be born in purity for Jesus to be born in purity, so the reasoning went.
Maybe all of this happened just this way. But what is so unfortunate is how the human body came to be seen as a sinful vessel.
In so doing, the Church began to lose sight of Mary’s humanity and her act of discipleship toward the child she bore.
The ancient Church rendered Mary into a perpetual virgin.
The gospels note, by the way, that Mary had many more children after Jesus including his brother Jacob, whom we know as James.
The real miracle of Jesus’ birth is that God chose to walk among us as a human being – in a body like ours. The miracle is the Incarnation.
By so doing, God showed us that the human body is good, that our creation is divine, and our deepest, most intimate and committed relationships are truly ordained by God, and should be cherished as sacred gifts not to be abused. Our relationships are sacred, and not to be abused.
Yes, indeed, a long, long time ago, a miracle happened: An angel came to Mary and told her she would be with child, and this child would change the world. How, she could not then know.
Not all of life can be understood by our intellect. Not everything lends itself to neat equations and philosophical categories and creeds.
Much of life is inexplicable. Sometimes a legend, or a poem, or song, or music, is more powerful than a dense theological treatise.
The holy can come when we least expect it, coming in the quiet of the night, or as an image of a young mother, or as a newborn child.
And so I bring you back to Mary, the Blessed Virgin, Maiden Miriam, who rejoiced at hearing she would have her child, Jesus.
She would be with him at every step of his life, even to his death and beyond.
She was truly the first Christian, and she still has much to teach us about how to say “yes” when it is hardest, and how to be a servant to the lowly, and what it means to face tremendous challenges with courage and even joy.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Amen